Perfect holiday gift: Where’d you go, Bernadette (review)

Where’d you go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
Little Brown

Chick lit plots and characters are like so many cut-out cookies, after a while. You’ve got the caterpillar career girl, the stuck-up (but oh-so-handsome) object of her affections. The mishaps. Enter heart-of-gold True Love to sweep her off her feet. The same can be said of YA fiction, except you substitute “misfit” for “career” and throw in some parent angst and maybe a little bullying. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette defies both categories. It could be chick lit, could be YA–but what I’m certain of is that the story is inventive and fun. The New York Times called it “divinely funny”, John Green, “A moving, smart page-turner,” and both were spot-on. where'd you go Bernadette

Bernadette, an LA transplant living in Seattle, was once America’s girl-architect phenom. Now she’s all but agoraphobic, living in an historic home for wayward girls she’s tried to thought about making into a home for her family. Bernadette has been hiding from the world for twenty years and thinks she likes it that way. (Her feuds with the stay-at-home moms at her daughter’s exclusive school and her rage at all things Seattle might lead the reader to come to another conclusion about her happiness, however.) Daughter Bee was dearly conceived and barely survived a life-threatening heart defect at birth; her first few years were touch and go. Bee is a gifted young woman with a heart of gold and a wit that’s sharp; she has soared through her first eight years of school and is on her way to Choate. Dad and husband Elgin Fox is a whiz at Microsoft and rarely at home. (If Semple is to be believed, I did learn that the Microsoft culture is creepy.)

There is conflict aplenty in Where’d you go. A battle royale with a neighbor–actually make that two neighbors; Bernadette has issues with people. An admin (that’s an administrative assistant in Microsoft speak) who’s also a home-wrecker. A house that has boarded off rooms and blackberry vines growing up through the floorboards. Top it all off with a trip to Antarctica that no one in the family really wants to take except Bee. Oh, and did I mention Bernadette that does her shopping and appointment making via a virtual assistant from Delhi, India named Manjula?

Now these unconventional characters also deal with some pretty serious matters and when Bernadette disappears (that’s the “where’d you go” part) I was a bit worried that the novel would take a U-turn and end up in A Lesson For Modern Times territory.

But no worries. It’s madcap. It’s zany. And you’ll smile the whole way through this read, I guarantee.

The dirty little secret about school libraries

One day when I was in 2nd grade, the librarian and my teacher Mrs. Zimmerman whispered, heads together, by the counter when it was time for my class to leave. And then–wonder of wonders–I was allowed to stay, gifted a few extra minutes of library time. The rest of the children lined up and it was back down the hall to SRAs and spelling. For a couple weeks I could only choose from the shelves for “our hall” with their picture books and early readers. And then I hit the jackpot. Mrs. Zimmerman worked me quickly through a set of readers (Eight books with captivating plots I like: “Up, up, up. How far is up?” Are ya kiddin’ me?!) and when I had finished them all … I could choose any book from any shelf in that library.

school library
By Jgjournalist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Tom Sawyer. Not a great choice for a seven-year-old, but I read it. I didn’t follow much of the plot, mind you, but my bookish little self just knew Tom Sawyer was an Important Book. The next week I put my pretensions aside and was hooked on Rummer Godden’s Doll’s House stories. Then Lois Lensky. And …

All because I had a teacher and a librarian with a roomful of books who fed the book worm that was me.

School librarians in my state are a dying breed–and many of their libraries are going the way of the dodo. Dwindling resources mean tight budgets and school administrators must find savings in every line item. They privatize the cafeteria. Outsource custodians. Subcontract busing. And many districts do away with their media specialists, or make do with only one librarian for the entire district. One.

It may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish.

school library
Chris Hearn@Flickr

Today’s school librarians are no longer the Marion the Librarians of the past who shush-shushed us and carded books. Good media specialists understand curriculum so well they find teachers books that support math, science, and history instruction, making an abstract concept come alive. Good librarians spend hours pouring over catalogs, checking forums, connecting with local bookstores, and attending reading conferences so that their shelves are stocked with quality books by well-respected writers and illustrators.

So who is left to run the library when all the librarians are gone? Part-time parent volunteers. Maybe a paraprofessional if we’re lucky. Or, in the case of my high school … no one. After twenty years as a librarian, administration added an hour of teaching freshman World History to her day. Then two the next year. Oh, and continue to oversee the libraries of five schools in addition to your teaching load, will you? (Is it any wonder the poor woman retired after two years of this?) We have a grand remodeled media center with modular seating, comfy chairs, and carts full of laptops–but the books?

Oh, they are a sad, sad lot.

We’ve had no  systematic ordering in years. There may be some budgeting for library books at the building level, but if there is, no one has ever told me–or asked what books my students are reading or requesting. Fiction is supplemented with donations. The non-fiction is outdated. Biographies end in the Bush administration. If I take my kids down to choose a Reading For Enjoyment book, there’s not a whole lot of reading available for enjoyment. Let’s face it–kids like the latest, the hot titles, the latest buzz. Some take a Harry Potter or Twilight for the umpteenth time just to have something. (I say “take” because that’s what we do. There’s no check out process, no inventory that I know of–I have kids sign out their titles on a form I created, but, still. When kids return the books, I carry a few crates down to the library and put them on a cart where they sit until a student volunteer shelves them.

I try to excite my students about reading. Sing the praises of a good book. Lend them titles I bring from home or have collected over the years for my classroom. But it’s not the same. A classroom is, well, a classroom. It’s where we work and test, day in and day out.

But magic happens in a library. A distinct hush that whispers pleasure. Displays of Newbery winners, holiday books, mysteries. Posters on the walls. The sun warming a special nook, just perfect for reading. Student art in the windows. And “Do you know any good books?”

Then the special someone whose mission in life is to answer that one question springs into action–with a roomful of books to offer and all the time in the world.


Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-sept-2016

T is for teenagers

Today is day 20 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout the month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: Teenagers

Let’s face it–teenagers get a bad rap. And some of the traits they exhibit, can be maddening. They speak before they think … way too often. (And act before they think, too–it’s that frontal lobe thing.) They can be single-minded to a fault–usually about a love interest or social media rather than studying for school, though. They can be incredibly shallow, focusing waaaaay too much energy on looks. They sleep. A lot.

Seussical the MusicalBut here’s the cast of my high school musical (hey … that might make a great TV show!) Suessical the Musical. These kids–pretty typical drama kids all–worked long hours in practice after school and at home learning their lines, the music, timing, and footwork. I’ve had nearly half of the kids in the cast and I am always blown away when I see them in another light, somewhere other than a seat in B209. In those seats I do see the annoying traits I mentioned. So I coax and nudge and admonish them into reading Lord of the Flies more carefuly or revising their Works Cited page just one more time.

But this afternoon I just smiled. There’s at least two who are pretty sick. You wouldn’t know it from the performance, though. They sparkled. More than a few of their families live a shave too close to having enough to get by. A few deal with baby siblings in their lives, Mom or Dad having started over. You’d never guess how many of them are incredibly shy in the classroom. One is an exchange student from a country about eighteen hours away by plane.

So, yeah, even I complain about teens’ loudness, their brashness, their cockiness. At the end of the play day, though, they are truly a joy.

L: Madeleine L’Engle (Blogging from A-Z)

Today is day 12 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theL
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: L’Engle


 Most readers come to Madeleine L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time books. (At least that’s what I call them–L’Engle’s website lists the series as the Time Quintet). When my own children were of an age to read the books twenty years ago, they proved madeleine l'engle's booksa great entry into the world of science fiction and fantasy. (Here’s a great segment about Wrinkle on NPR’s All Things Considered about its appeal.) And believe it or not, Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, was even popular when I was in grade school. But I didn’t read it.

I first came to Madeleine L’Engle through a series she wrote: The Crosswicks Journals. Part memoir, part spirituality, the books explore the writer’s life as a mother, wife, and writer. They are introspective and not at all preachy, dealing with caring for an aging relative, our need for solitude, marriage, and the role of the sacred in modern life. (In fact, writing this, I think I’ll return to the books this summer.)

After falling in love with the Crosswick Journals, I backtracked and read a few of the Wrinkle books, as well as Meet the Austins and Troubling a Star, titles I’d consider Young Adult. Even as an adult (a crossover!) I wasn’t disappointed with the ideas in books that were written ostensibly for younger readers.

In fact, I have a Wrinkle in Time and Swiftly Tilting Planet in my classroom library–and just yesterday, I had a young man check one out. He’s sixteen, mind you. A true testament to the endurance of a writer who cares about Ideas.

Eleanor & Park: review

Eleanor and Park
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin

They say kids don’t read anymore. And every school year I do have sixteen-year-olds who swear they’ve never read an entire book. And I sure don’t have many of those kids who (like me!) indiscriminately scan through the fiction Eleanorsection and check out their seven library book limit just so they can be sure to have a book on hand at all times.  But quite a few of my students do read—probably more than in my first years of teaching, even. From what I see in my classroom, the books they choose must pack some punch, either action-wise (Insurgent and Hunger Games) or emotionally (The Fault In Our Stars and 13 Reasons Why).  They read Jodi Piccoult and Chris Kyle, Vampire Diaries and Unbroken.

So maybe it’s safer to say that kids don’t read just any old book nowadays, and quality YA fiction is usually at the top of their list.

I try to read one or two YA novels each year, usually recommended by one of my kids. This summer, my YA of choice was Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. It will definitely go into my classroom library at school—and I’m guessing will be checked out and passed around more often than not.

Eleanor is the new kid. She’s just returned home after being kicked out by her step-dad the year before. The first bus ride is a nightmare—Eleanor  is big and awkward with wiry red curls and mismatched Goodwill clothes.  Considering the bus full of teenagers, she really should have just pinned a target onto her back.

And while Park doesn’t want to get involved (he had enough trouble keeping the target off his back), he couldn’t stand to see her frozen in the aisle, bus driver shouting “Hey, you … sit down!” as kids blocked any empty seat she passed. (That odd, but familiar, seat claiming that occurs on buses, in the classroom, at lunch.) “Sit down,” [Park] said. It came out angrily … [Eleanor] couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what.” So she sat.

On the way home, what was she to do but return to sit next to Park? And so begins—slowly and carefully—a sweet and tender love story about two kids who didn’t fit in with anyone else but each other.

Park has his own issues that set him apart: he’s a taekwondo black belt, his mother is a Korean immigrant, he’s a comic book nerd. Unlike Eleanor, though, Park has grown up with the kids at school and so he has earned a measure of acceptance. (He also doesn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks as Eleanor does, so that helps.) Before long, Park begins to let Eleanor read his X-comics on the bus out of the corner of her eye. He shares his headphones so she can listen to the Smiths, then brings her batteries for her Walkman so she can listen at home. They hold hands.

At first, Eleanor tries to hide her life from Park—her step dads drunk rages, the four kids to a bedroom, a bathroom without a door, endless meals of beans. She wants only to live in the glow that is their friendship. But Real Love doesn’t work that way and, with Park’s prompting, she begins to let him in.

The teasing doesn’t fully stop. There’s an incident in the gym locker room. Lewd comments on the bus. Park punches the lights out of (actually, it’s a jump reverse hook) one of the biggest bullies and is suspended. But the focus of Eleanor’s trouble moves from school to her home life and Park decides if he can’t save Eleanor, Real Love might mean letting her go.

I don’t often appreciate teenage love stories, I must admit. (It just might have something to do with being a teenage bride myself.) But Eleanor & Park was a love story that just might convince me that love at sixteen is possible. Or if not that, it was enough that Eleanor & Park is captivating. It is gentle and wistful.

And in the end, it is triumphant.